CINCINNATI, Ohio — Four pairs of cleats are neatly arranged on a lower ledge. The tiger-striped helmet hangs from a black hook on the left side of the wooden cubicle. T-shirts are bunched on hangers in the back. Shoulder pads rest upside-down on the top shelf.
The Bengals haven’t cleaned out Chris Henry’s locker yet. They haven’t really replaced him, either.
Henry’s death last month staggered his former teammates, who attended his funeral in New Orleans, then played poorly in their last two games. They’ll have decals with his No. 15 on the backs of their helmets when they host the New York Jets in a wild-card playoff on Saturday.
His absence continues to touch them in many ways.
“Chris was a big part of our offence, and a part of our offence that we weren’t able to replace,” said quarterback Carson Palmer, who delivered a eulogy at his funeral. “Chris was a friend that is missed more than anything.”
Palmer had a special connection with the 26-year-old receiver. On Cincinnati’s second play in a 2005 playoff against Pittsburgh, Palmer completed a 66-yard pass to Henry that was the longest in Bengals playoff history. Both suffered knee injuries on the play.
Palmer’s left knee was shredded by a hit from Kimo von Oelhoffen after he threw the pass. Henry hurt his right knee when he was tackled, and left the game a few plays later. With the two stars gone, the Bengals lost 31-17.
Both recovered, though Henry’s off-field problems — five arrests — led the team to release and then re-sign him. At age 26, he seemed to have started turning his life around this year. His death last month in what police described as a domestic dispute with his fiancee brought his former teammates to tears.
They have kept his memory alive in the locker room, where his cubicle is unchanged from the last time he used it.
“He started to change the way he did things and care about people,” offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “He mentored some of the younger players. He really started to take care of all the things that make a professional athlete. This team needs to act like that — like pros — in the playoffs.”
On the day Henry died in North Carolina, the players dedicated the rest of the season to the receiver and to Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive co-ordinator Mike Zimmer. She died at the couple’s home earlier in the season.
Now that the Bengals are in the playoffs, the tone has changed slightly.
“It’s not one of those cliches — a ‘win this for Chris’ type of deal — because that is not what it’s about,” Palmer said. “Each guys holds Chris in a different light and remembers him in a different way. We are here to get a playoff win and find a way to beat these guys and move on to the next round.”
They’ll have a tougher time moving on in the playoffs without him.
Henry was the Bengals’ fastest receiver and best deep threat. With his long arms and jumping ability, the 6-foot-4 receiver was a primary target near the goal line.
He broke his left forearm while making a catch early in the second quarter of a win over Baltimore on Nov. 8. Since then, the offence has struggled, scoring only nine touchdowns in the 81/2 games without him. The Bengals have been forced to settle for 18 field goals during that span. Against the Jets last Sunday, they had the worst offensive showing in franchise history during a 37-0 loss. Palmer played into the third quarter and went 1-of-11 for no yards with an interception. Cincinnati managed only 72 net yards, a franchise low. The Bengals finished with zero net passing yards.
The offence also was abysmal in a 17-10 win over Kansas City the previous week, when the Bengals clinched the AFC North title. Players acknowledged that they were wrung out from attending Henry’s funeral five days earlier.
There was more closure this week when police in Charlotte, N.C., said they won’t charge Henry’s fiancee in connection with his death. Loleini Tonga was driving a pickup truck with Henry in the back after the couple had argued at a home owned by her family on Dec. 16.
Tonga said this week that Henry jumped from the back of the truck, but didn’t intend to harm himself. He suffered a massive head injury and died the next day.
Bengals players had befriended Tonga, who was raising three children with Henry. They were relieved on Thursday that she won’t face prosecution.
Whitworth sees a parallel between the way Henry had tried to turn himself around and how the Bengals dug out of their 4-11-1 finish last season to become a playoff team.
“Last year at this time, we were a team with a totally different attitude and scheme,” Whitworth said. “No one believed in us. He was a guy who had been in a lot of trouble and no one believed in him. He changed his life around and we turned this organization around in one year’s time.”